Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2020
Margaret C. Adler The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion Exh. cat. Fort Worth, TX and New Haven, CT: Amon Carter Museum of American Art in association with Yale University Press, 2020. 168 pp.; 175 color ills. Cloth $40.00 (9780300246193)
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX, February 8–July 5, 2020
The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion, installation view, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX, 2020 (photograph provided by Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, TX)

Mark Dion is a self-described lover of stuff. His materials include broken buttons, vials of insects, antique toys, decaying trees. Shopping at flea markets and gleaning from his environs, he works intuitively. He relies on a certain duration with and proximity to “things” in order to find those that inspire. Indeed, Dion has come to “identify with the mission of the museum, where you go to gain knowledge through things.” He, like the museum, believes in the power of objects to inform and enrich, but his sculptures and installations question the authority of institutional knowledge production. Sometimes working at the behest of museums, culling from their collections, he complicates master narratives and positivistic biases through appropriation and recontextualization. For instance, his cabinets, inspired by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Wunderkammern (cabinets of curiosity) and nineteenth-century scientific displays, concretize the inextricability of the subjective and objective within scientific, historical, and museological discourses. The critical intervention of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art installations, premised on his proximity to objects, also rely on a similar engagement from the viewer.

For The Perilous Texas Adventures of Mark Dion, the artist joined curator Margaret C. Adler to focus his practice on nineteenth-century “artist explorers.” At the show’s heart are four “Yankees” (Northeasterners) who visited the nascent Texas Republic: ornithologist and artist John James Audubon, watercolorist Sarah Ann Lillie Hardinge, travel writer and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, and botanist Charles Wright. Dion retraced their travels in four trips between 2018 and 2019, exploring and collecting objects in Fort Worth, the Gulf Coast, western Texas, King Ranch, Austin, and San Antonio with help from local guides. The result, for the most part, is doubly site specific: a record of Dion’s Texas adventures and a response to the museum’s nineteenth-century accounts, curated by Adler. The Perilous Texas Adventures thus celebrates and critiques documents of encounter; anchored by Dion’s work, Adler links the experiential methods of the artist, explorer, and historian—past and present—through a physical proximity to objects.

Unfortunately, the museum closed because of COVID-19 on March 14, 2020, the week I planned to visit. I now had the opportunity, however, to engage the show’s themes in ways never anticipated by Adler and Dion. Nineteenth-century travelogues and artist representations served an audience who could not and perhaps would never visit Texas. They, like us, were armchair travelers. The “accounts” of the show I gathered were: exhibition catalog, installation shots from Dion’s gallerist’s website (Tanya Bonakdar Gallery), a documentary about the exhibition commissioned by the museum, and materials from the museum (a press release and more installation shots). The catalog relays stories behind the exhibition—its conception, the nineteenth-century travelers, Dion’s journeys—but neither the exhibition’s layout nor Dion’s completed works. For those, I depended on the press release, installation shots, and film (directed by Erik Clapp), which, in addition to documenting Dion’s journeys, includes footage of and narration by Dion as he assembles his sculptures. What follows is a “constructed” overview of the exhibition and an analysis of Dion’s work that, based in my mediated experience, pushes at the limits of his object-centered practice.

The show is divided into three thematic galleries that narrow in focus. The first, “The Phenomenon of the Artist Explorer,” serves as an introduction, assembling names now canonical for depictions of western landscapes, indigenous cultures, and flora/fauna: Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, William Henry Jackson, Martin Johnson Heade. Paintings, photographs, and prints hang in tight groups by subject; vitrines hold contemporaneous books and periodicals that circulated such images. This not only communicates how important image making was to European American exploration; it also frames these works as representations rather than as self-evident documentation. Together the objects become documents of a different kind, revealing a tenuous discourse of domination where artist, explorer, and scientist collide.

The second gallery, “Concerning Texas,” brings these themes home by featuring work by the aforementioned four Yankees: Audubon, Hardinge, Olmsted, and Wright. Adler thus folds the Yankees’ northern-centric progressivism into her critique of nineteenth-century discourses of exploration. Personal ephemera and biographies in the wall text highlight the individual perspectives and lived realities that informed scientific, journalistic, and artistic representations of Texas, but were rarely acknowledged therein. Hardinge’s intimate landscapes refine that critique: private image making also participated in the conventions of public discourses.

Dion’s work fills the final gallery, “A Contemporary Yankee Explores Unknown Regions of Texas”: lithographs of tools, reminiscent of technical drawings; a vitrine of preserved and pressed biological samples; a pram carrying antelope skulls. The Texas Cabinet is the focal point. Along with the oddities and specimens expected of Wunderkammern and biological collections, Dion’s glass shelves and flat-file drawers feature objects from everyday life, idiosyncratically organized: one drawer contains pristine Girl Scout badges (one, designed by Dion, features the exhibition’s title), a Blockbuster rewards card, tarnished cutlery, and a single domino. Behind the cabinet, separated by a partition, sits a wooden desk covered in more vials, jars, notecard boxes, tools, a lamp, USPS packages—and a chair, placed as if just abandoned. The Perilous Texas Adventures Specimen Preparation Table, thus positioned, winkingly indexes the labor “behind” The Texas Cabinet, eliding the times, places, and people involved.

Like many of Dion’s earlier works, these sculptures evince appropriation’s ambivalent form of critique. They reproduce the look of “neutral” collections and “rational” cataloging while leaving traces of the human hand, exposing the impossibility of neutrality. Politically, this critical mode can be problematic: reenacting the dominant structure, one risks affirming it, or aspects of its mastery, along with providing the intended critique. The contents of Dion’s installations signal a difference from the “objective” aesthetics he appropriates, indicating “this was made by a person, imperfect and particular”—but what of Dion, specifically? Why the Blockbuster card with the scouting badges? Such constellations open a space to consider the biases and experiences that contributed to their collection, albeit primarily in the abstract. Presented “neutrally,” the idiosyncratic objects facilitate a critique of objective authority but replicate its elision of specific subjective experience.

The museumgoer would have learned of Dion’s travels from wall text, photo albums in The Texas Cabinet, and an installation of his postcards. As a virtual visitor, I received more from the catalog and film. Dion’s journal entries and footage from the road clarify that his appropriation surpassed the aesthetics of scientific and institutional display. A traveler from the Northeast, new to Texas, Dion also embodied the role of the Yankee artist-explorer. This adds another performative layer to his critique, further highlighting the subjectivities at play in methods and narratives of exploration. However, Dion’s position as Yankee and the power dynamic that still invokes, while present in the exposition of the show, appears, from my vantage, less critically explored in the work itself.

This is an opportunity missed, for Dion’s and Adler’s focus on the fallibility of “objectivity” draws attention to what was and was not included in the contemporary “collection” of Texas. Dion explains in the catalog that he had not “actively tried to engage” the US-Mexican border, even though “it permeates the discourse of the zeitgeist through the pernicious politics of fear and hate that seethes forth from Washington” (75). Nevertheless, he complicates that discursive border by relating, with dismay, how swiftly he passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint in West Texas. But how does that experience and the privilege implicit to it manifest in his installations? Is it an empty bottle of “Mexican Coke”? Perhaps it is, and this bottle “carries a kind of memory—of where [he] found it . . . what kinds of trials and tribulations [he] was under,” as Dion says in the film about every object in his sculptures. Yet, however open the viewer may be to a material’s aura, an object cannot inherently convey the complexity of another’s experience with it. The US-Mexican border, as a continual and contested site of encounter and as a fluid cultural zone, has been a defining feature of Texas’s history and culture, even beyond the recent, nationalist horrors of detention camps and walls; explicitly interrogating his experience with it in this body of work would have made Dion’s well-established form of institutional and historical critique even more local to Texas.

From my remove, the exhibition catalog and the film are the objects that made the themes and thesis of the show most complete. The former, designed to “play off the look and feel of grand expeditionary journals,” takes its own appropriative approach (press release, 2020). But in Dion’s journal, Adler’s introductions, and, most of all, their guides’ reflections, the specific individuals and experiences of the Texas “collection” become clear. These guides include: Amada Miller, artist; Barney L. Lipscomb, Leonhardt Chair of Texas Botany, Botanical Research Institute of Texas; Juanita Pahdopony, Comanche artist, educator, and poet; Veronica C. Roberts, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin; and Eric Schnell, director, Galveston Artist Residency. Through these other voices, the catalog cracks its veneer of “objective” expeditionary journal. The film also ties the subjective to the social by featuring Dion’s family and other museum staff and by sharing its narration with Dion’s Texas guides. The Perilous Texas Adventures, mediated by these many voices, becomes much more than Dion’s—his journey was possible only in and through a web of others. In The Texas Cabinet, I spot the metal orbs that Miller recalls Dion buying in San Antonio; I note the shells and sea detritus Schnell collected with Dion in Galveston.

My “constructed” review has limits; I struggled to see textural details, missed the scale of objects in space. But by engaging other objects, I saw Dion’s works differently; I could sense the presence of these other individuals. This armchair traveler experience is mostly available to the public, although not for free, as visiting the museum would be. As of June 19, the museum is open again, and visitors can see the show until July 5. For those who will remain in their armchairs a bit longer: the film streams on Amazon Prime, the catalog can be purchased—and hopefully the museum will add installation shots to their website. The pandemic has forced museums to make many difficult, unprecedented decisions, among them how—and whether—to bring collections and shows online to the homebound museumgoing public. Flashing up at a moment of danger, the historical context and political implications of Walter Benjamin’s questions of reproduction and accessibility take on new weight. If a certain auratic relationship with the object is lost, what else might be found?

Francesca Balboni
PhD, Department of Art + Art History, University of Texas at Austin